Control review: So good, you might finally stop asking for Alan Wake 2

A fake Christmas tree, undecorated. A stack of letters. A boat shaped like a swan. A “Get well soon!” balloon, inflated and floating. A stoplight. The exhibits go on and on down the hallway, white room after white room, identical but for the everyday object at the center of each one. Normal, ordinary objects—at least to the casual observer. But that baby carriage is emitting smoke, and you could swear you hear quacks echoing from a few rooms down.

You’re at the heart of the Federal Bureau of Control, and these aren’t exhibits—they’re cells. Each contains an Altered Item, some of the most dangerous objects on the planet. And, uh, some of them are missing.

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Control is the culmination of over a decade’s experiments. Control is the game Remedy’s been trying to make since at least Alan Wake, or maybe since the studio was founded, integrating lessons learned from each project along the way. Control is the game that might get people to stop asking for an Alan Wake 2.

Control is so damn good.

And I wish I could leave it at that, because Control is also borderline unreviewable—even more so than its release-day compatriot Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, which is really saying something.

It’s not that Control is stunningly experimental or anything of that sort, because it’s not. This really is the ur-Remedy, the point where Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break meet. Third-person action game? Lots of story-adjacent collectibles? Paranormal themes? Affinity for live-action video? Love letter to brutalist architecture? Control checks all the myriad boxes I’ve come to associate with Remedy over the years.

There are simply fewer caveats. Alan Wake for instance tells a fantastic story, but its stop-and-pop gunfights were a chore even at the time, and Quantum Break’s hybrid game-and-television format left both halves feeling somewhat compromised.

Control is first-and-foremost a fantastic third-person action game, the likes of which Remedy hasn’t really made since Max Payne 2. You’re a force of nature, ripping chunks of concrete from the wall to shield yourself, then catapulting into the air and blasting your makeshift barricade out into the surrounding enemies, finishing off one with a quick headshot and another with a desk picked up and thrown from across the room.

Supernatural abilities are your primary weapon for the most part, especially telekinesis. You can pick up enemies and throw them into walls, throw walls into enemies, even grab rockets out of the air and redirect them. It’s a magnificent ballet of destruction, easy to understand and devastating to behold.

Your gun is a lesser threat, but still pretty creative. Dubbed the Service Weapon, it can take five forms: Pistol, submachine gun, shotgun, sniper, and grenade launcher. Swapping forms causes the gun to literally reshape itself, with a shared ammo pool that recharges over time.

With both ammo and abilities governed by separate meters, Control feels very rhythmic. Shoot, throw, shoot, throw. It makes the Max Payne comparisons all the more obvious, as those games and their use of Matrix-style bullet-time also had a flow that gradually became second-nature, and never wore thin even once you’d internalized the best strategies for any given fight.

 I wish the weapon mods you pick up were more interesting. They’re mostly of the “Increase a trait by an insignificant percentage” mold, and completely randomized—which as with most randomized loot, renders them vaguely meaningless by the end of the game. But that’s a small nitpick in an overall entertaining framework. Very entertaining. I can’t stress that enough.

Writing remains Remedy’s strength though. Such density of writing, so many layers, and so few of them easy to explain.

You play as Jesse Faden, an ordinary civilian who one day wanders into The Oldest House, headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control. Here’s the catch: Jesse shouldn’t have been able to get into The Oldest House in the first place. People aren’t supposed to know about The Oldest House, and anyone who doesn’t know about The Oldest House can’t find it. Not only that, but the Bureau is currently in lockdown, which should’ve made The Oldest House doubly inaccessible.

She’s able to enter though, and sets about restoring order. The Bureau’s come under attack by an alien entity dubbed The Hiss, so named because it propagates person-to-person through some sort of barely-audible whine. Jesse seems immune though, and is able to battle it back and explore The Oldest House in the process.

And for a long time The Oldest House is the star. We took a look at Control’s Research Level back at GDC, and I fell in love with the odd details. There was the Ashtray Maze, a labyrinth that reshaped itself as I wandered through it, inevitably leading back to the beginning each time. There was Audio Lab #2, the existence of which implied an Audio Lab #1 if only I looked hard enough. There was a weird mold-ridden basement, site of an experiment seemingly gone catastrophic.

These and other locations make exploring The Oldest House a joy in itself. You never really know what the hell you’ll find around the next corner. Maybe it’ll be a boring office full of filing cabinets and some potted plants. Maybe it’ll be a soundproof room filled with dozens of static-filled TVs. Maybe it’ll be an endless void, bookended by thick concrete doors.

Control begs you to wander. Some locations are essential, but many exist only to flesh out the Bureau’s background, to give the player more window onto this world. And to that end, Control is filled with collectibles.

Simply put, they’re the best collectibles I’ve ever seen. Some detail the Bureau’s work with Altered Items, everyday objects that have been imbued with special powers. Others describe what happens before the Bureau finds Altered Items, the ways they torment unsuspecting communities.

Communities like say Bright Falls, Washington. You know, for example.

My favorite though are recordings of the enigmatic (and charismatic) Doctor Casper Darling. These are Remedy’s best live-action videos to-date, each a faux-educational video about some aspect of the Bureau’s research. Altered Items, Objects of Power, Altered World Events, The Board, the Service Weapon—Control’s world is weird, but Darling’s presentations ground it, make the supernatural feel deceptively normal.

Are collectibles a crutch? Yeah, sure. I said as much when reviewing Quantum Break, and it’d be wrong not to reiterate the same here. Control’s collectibles feel more justified though. They’re not scattered around in weird places, nor do they tend to take the form of ultra-convenient documents that happened to get left out. They’re research that could conceivably be left out, or in the case of Darling’s presentations, film reels that play on in-game projectors and TVs in appropriate locations.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it feels far less distracting than it has in past Remedy games. Core story information is generally conveyed in ways the player can’t miss, through conversations and cutscenes, and I didn’t feel like I was going out of my way to find collectibles—but then again, they’re so well-executed I would’ve hunted them down regardless.

Anyway, exploring The Oldest House sustains the vast majority of the game. Through the end, you’re still accessing new areas and uncovering deeper and darker secrets about the Bureau’s operations. The pacing is excellent, aside from a few half-hearted side missions.

And if I have any complaints, it’s that I wish there was more to do outside the main story. Control is ostensibly an open-world game, but gives you little reason to revisit places you’ve been. The Oldest House is enormous, and a lot of it is just set-dressing.

Jesse’s story sustains forward momentum throughout though, which I’m hard-pressed to whine about. And it’s great, in a way that’s very reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and other New Weird genre fiction—meaning the story doesn’t so much resolve as much as it just implodes. If you want answers from Control? You’ll get some, but not all. Not even close.

I imagine an expansion is on its way, and in some respects this feels like a repeat of Alan Wake, where the main story wrapped up but a more fulfilling ending came after release. Control seems like it might go the same direction.

That doesn’t detract from what’s here though. I loved pretty much every moment with Control, and find it sad I’ve seemingly uncovered all The Oldest House’s secrets. Few spaces have felt so satisfying to explore.

RTX showcase

Before we go, it’s also worth mentioning Control is a tour de force for ray-tracing. Don’t get me wrong, it looks great with RTX disabled as well—though the edges of objects tend to blur, same as Quantum Break. Not sure what’s up with that, whether it’s a stylistic choice.

This isn’t one of those spot-the-difference RTX implementations though, where you’re peering at screenshots trying to figure out whether it’s even enabled. Real-time reflections are amazing, especially in Control ‘s glass-heavy hallways. Being able to see Jesse’s reflection in television screens, on posters, in The Oldest House’s display cases, and so on—it sounds insignificant, and as far as the game is concerned, it is. You’re not gaining a competitive edge from RTX.

RTX enabled…

…versus disabled. Notice the lack of reflections on the glass wall, and less detailed reflections on the floor in the outer room. (Check out the video up top for real-time back-and-forth testing.)

It’s an additional and subtle bit of realism though which increases the contrast between The Oldest House’s boring government office facade and the supernatural elements at war within. And uh, if that’s not enough? Well, it just looks damn cool.

Is Control the game that sells you on an RTX card? Probably not. They’re still expensive, and one game doesn’t justify that cost—especially when the effects are so tangential to the core loop. That said, it feels like there’s finally a game Nvidia can point to and say “See, this is why RTX is a key part of future graphics technology” and people will get it. It’s a hell of a lot more impressive than Battlefield V’s puddles, or even Metro Exodus’s pitch-black night environments and lighting tricks.

Bottom line

Anyway, that’s all secondary to the real point: Control is one of 2019’s best, hands down. Less experimental than Alan Wake or Quantum BreakControl nevertheless manages to combine the best aspects of Remedy’s past successes into something that feels fresh and inspired, and plays better without sacrificing story depth.

I can only hope The Oldest House has further depths waiting to be explored, because it’ll be a shame if this is where Control ends. Then again, Remedy’s willingness to move on and experiment anew is what brought us here in the first place, so if that needs to happen again? That’s the price you pay to keep being surprised.

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